Filmmaker Andrea Segre did not have the best relationship with his father, Ulderico. There was a chasm between them, one that he could not overcome no matter how many bridges he attempted to build. Raised in Venice, his father, who worked as a molecular physicist, was a reserved man of a few words. He remained a mystery for all of Segre’s life, a riddle that he desperately wanted to crack. In his latest documentary Molecules, Segre attempts to better understand his deceased father by traveling through the same Venetian streets where his dad spent his formative years.
Using the old Super 8 films that Ulderico had recorded in Venice in his teens, and an unanswered letter that Segre had written his father 20 years ago as a jumping off point, Molecules sets out to find a connection with someone we can no longer see, but still lingers within us. Segre’s goal was to see Venice through his father’s eye’s, to make sense of a city that seemed foreign to him as a child. What he did not anticipate when embarking on this journey in February of 2020 was that a global pandemic would drastically impact Venice. The once vibrant city, famously bustling with tourists, became a hollow and silent landscape.
Transformed into nearly a ghost town whose lavish architecture houses secrets of another time, Venice takes on a new life in Molecules. Prior to the pandemic, Segre presents a mosaic of a city that is almost bursting at the seams. Tourism, the high cost of living, and the lack of opportunities had made the locals, such as the fisherman and regatta rowers interviewed in the film, a little jaded. While their love of the city is unwavering, there is a sense that the serene beauty of the region has been trampled on by the feet of commerce. However, when the pandemic forces the tourists to flee, and stay-at-home orders are put in place, Segre observes a version of Venice that has not been seen in 50 years.
His camera provides a rare glimpse into a city reduced to its essence. One where the absence of water taxis brings a stillness back to the canals, and the sound of seagulls thunderously echo off building walls as if proclaiming nature’s return to dominance. It is in this now quiet space where Segre not only learns more about the real Venice, and the dangers that the city faces with higher and higher tides, but unexpectedly finds a sense of bonding with his father.
While the void in the city brings him a sense of comfort and connection to the past, this does not always translate well in the film. At times taking a philosophical approach to his exploration of his father, Segre’s documentary never quite matches the same sense of wonder as when he is roaming the vacant city. This is partly due to the fact that the audience has so little insight into Segre’s father in the first place. Since there are no relatives or colleagues interviewed, the audience must rely on the accounts of a person who is trying to sort things out as he goes.
In trying to understand a life that we do not have full privy to, Molecules does not always resonate as deeply as it should. One walks away reflecting more on the beauty of Venice itself rather than the strained father/son dynamic it attempts to heal.
Molecules premieres at Hot Docs 2021.